You know, I’ve always had this weird obsession with reflections. That’s possibly overstating the matter, really, but I can remember reading Through the Looking Glass at a young age, and the whole concept really resonating with me. Everything being reversed. That disorienting sensation where things are on the wrong side. For years I’ve looked at reflections – in mirrors, windows, puddles – and imagined a mirror world, where everything is the other way round. Back to front.
Which is a neat sort of image to open with really, because it turns out (to my own surprise) that today is International Letfthanders’ Day. I wasn’t aware that it was a Thing, but hey. It is! Unite, my fellow lefties!
Most likely, the connection doesn’t make sense at first. But really, the more I think about it, the more I see how linked those two thoughts are. Being left handed in a world where more than 90% of the population isn’t, you quickly learn to adapt. Some with greater ease than others, to be sure, but you do work things out. You manage. Maybe you never even consciously think about it most of the time, because that’s just how things have always been. It’s still there though.
I will admit, I did roll my eyes when the Lefthanders’ Day thing popped up. Because… it’s just a hand, you know? I don’t usually see a big deal in it. Most people use their right hand, I use my left. No problem. And then I started thinking, and looking back over my childhood (always a dangerous pasttime, that), and I realised that no, maybe there is something in this after all.
Being left handed is a lifetime of micro strategising. It’s adapting to a world which was made for people who work the other way around. It is, when you get right down to it, like growing up in the mirror world. Where everyone reaches for something on the opposite side to you. Where you need that extra second to go: “Oh, no, the handle/pen/mouse is on the other side.”
Of course, being an adult, that’s mostly instinctive. Being an adult in my own home it’s also mostly unnecessary. I leave my kettle with the handle on the left. I own left handed scissors and vegetable peelers, and a tin opener which works for both hands. The rest I learnt to deal with years ago.
It’s childhood really, where it can be a problem. Which, if you look at the Wikipedia page for International Lefthanders’ Day, is sort of the purpose of having a Day (with all the emphasis of capitalisation that it implies) in the first place.
Because when I look back on my childhood, there’s that little undercurrent all the way through. It’s the green and yellow handled scissors which were always blunt, because there were so few lefties to use them that they never got replaced. (I learnt to use right handed scissors in my left hand – other solutions include really sucking at using scissors until you get proper ones, or just using your right hand to cut with.) It’s the moment when everyone else in year four was writing with a pen, and I was told I couldn’t because I made a horrific smudgey mess of everything I wrote – if you’re left handed, writing left-to-right is a bit of a bother. I can remember very clearly – even twenty years on, nearabout – the day that someone told me to turn the paper so that I wrote towards myself instead of horizontally. It was a revelation. It was a chance to not be the Odd One Out. To not be held back because teachers just didn’t have any practical advice for someone not being the same as the rest of the students.
I mean, it’s pretty sad, in a way. Because I can recognise that it’s not a big deal. We’re not talking serious, life-changing stuff here. And yet I remember that. I remember feeling different, just because of the hand I use. I remember sitting in lessons and having problems because I would knock into the elbow of the person next to me if I wasn’t careful. If I didn’t sit on the left. I remember that frustrating moment where I picked up a peeler and I couldn’t use the damn thing because the blade was on the wrong side. I remember my frustration with the brief, short stint I had learning the piano because my right hand just wouldn’t do the fiddly bits. I remember PE lessons where I was just plain backwards to everyone else. Holding the bat or the racket in the wrong damn hand.
I remember going into hospital for problems in my teens, and having a cannula put in my left wrist, and feeling completely helpless because suddenly I couldn’t move it properly, and there went my ability to do pretty much anything. I’m a writer, and could no longer put pen to paper. It was hell. (These days I make a point of getting them to put it on the right side. That there is a “these days” for that statement is something of a bugbear of mine, but never mind.)
And I remember the jokes. The stupid, irritating jokes. Not often enough for me to class them as anything other than an irritation, but there, all the same. The implication that being a leftie is weird. That I’m awkward. That I’m clumsy. The constant “bad handwriting” association. The weird looks when I pick up knives and apparently “just look awkward”. To be honest, the fact that it’s anything to comment on at all, outside of making adjustments for it. Why does it matter?
Because, you know, kids aren’t stupid. I mean, you tell a child often enough that they’re different, and they’re not just going to gloss over that fact. When you make a fuss about a child who smudges their writing and don’t offer a solution, you can’t just expect them to be okay with that. I had years of feeling self-conscious about my handwriting. To the point where I would apologise for it before anyone even saw it. To the point where, these days, I have this compulsion to show my handwriting to people just so they can comment on the fact that it’s tiny, not scruffy. To get that validation that I overcame the problem. It’s a minor insecurity which never went away.
And I’ll be honest, I’m not even that left handed. In some respects, yeah, I am. I do most stuff with my left hand. But I don’t have a different setup for my computer – I use a mouse in my right hand. (I type slightly weirdly though because my left hand does most of the work.) I eat “right-handedly”, whatever that means, and I can use my right hand for stuff when needed. I have a degree of ambidexterity. There are plenty of people out there who struggle to adapt as well as I can. Who need to change keybindings on their computer to make things work. Who really need left handed scissors, instead of liking them. Who grow up feeling short-changed because they were born on the wrong side of the mirror, and everything is back to front – and instead of helping, people just make idle jokes associating lefthandedness with clumsiness or being “wrong” in some way. “Cackhanded” is one of my least favourite words, for that exact reason. (I also super hate “southpaw” but I accept that’s a personal bugbear and lots of other people like the word. For me it’s like a tic. I hear it, and I want to thump someone. I have a HAND. I do not – and am not – a fucking PAW.)
I guess the point I’m trying to make is this. Left handedness isn’t something I really think about until I’m reminded of it – and then the floodgates open and I realise just how many things irritate me on a near-daily basis which I’m so used to tuning out that I seldom think of it. It’s cash points having the Chip and PIN reader on the right hand side, so I have to stretch to do it (that was worse when cards still had signatures, btw. Super fucking annoying trying to fit in the awkwardly-placed gap). It’s those study chairs at colleges and in sixth forms having the desk attachment on the right arm (although the 90 degrees trick for handwriting helps there). It’s so-called ergonomically designed utensils being shaped so as to be nigh unusable. It’s the oven controls being placed in such a way that I have to stop myself reaching over the hob in order to turn the temperature down. It’s every till I ever used while working in retail being geared for right handers.
It’s teenage me getting flack from the teachers when I cut my left hand on a glass bowl and they didn’t believe that I was unable to write my homework. Because hey, it was my left hand. (Not even joking about that one. I went in with my hand bandaged and the response was “use your right hand”. To take notes. In a GCSE History lesson. Yes I am still bitter. No, I wasn’t able to take notes.)
I am a leftie who spawned another leftie. So some of these issues I’m starting to see from the other side, too. I see my daughter writing with a super awkward grip on her pencil. I see her struggling with scissors (I made sure to buy a leftie pair so she had some with blades that actually cut). I can already foresee future hurdles as she moves outside of my leftie-friendly home into a mirror world which really doesn’t give a lot of allowance at times. I wonder if I should present her with the same challenges I had, so that she learns to adapt young. In a sense, she already has – my right handed computer setup means that she, like me, will grow up able to use regular computers without issue.
There’s a correlation between left handedness and creativity. I think the general public assumption is that it’s genetic, but really, I think it’s as much growing up in the mirror world as anything. It’s a lifetime’s experience finding solutions to the problem of everything being back-to-front. A childhood adapting to the almost limitless minor inconveniences of the world around. Of the locks on every single locker being on the right hand side of the door. Of fumbling your own way to writing legibly. Of manhandling implements so that they work backwards. Of being super glad to live in the UK when you learn to drive because ha! At last, something which seems tailor made to me! (And then not being able to drive any more, but oh well.)
So, ultimately, on International Lefthanders’ Day, I want to stand up and gesticulate wildly. Not so much to celebrate the fact that I’m different (although at one time I did pretty much do that about being a leftie), or to make out that I’m super hard done by (although, again, I was a teenager, so I had that phase about leftiehood too). It’s more just… if you know someone left handed – particularly a child – maybe take a minute to appreciate that all those little obstacles do add up. They’re small hurdles, but they can have an effect. A lifetime of hopping over them adds up to a lot of extra energy spent. And maybe there are some hurdles which don’t need to be there.
My daughter is not the only leftie in the class. There’s a stupid number of them in her year group. Nine in one class, eleven in the other. It’s amazing. She won’t spend her primary years being the odd one out. And that’s good. But that’s also not the case in every school. Not every child is in such good company, and sadly, some children are subject to bullying or put-downs because of it. To struggling because of illegible handwriting. To finding it hard to use scissors or computers (ever important in our technological age). Is that really how things ought to be, in this day and age? Should we be letting children grow up being othered just because of the hand they use? It’s all rather Lilliputian, to my mind. Surely we can make the world a more adaptable place. For everyone.